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A retrospective on the Pillar trade, and the incentives ruining baseball

The Blue Jays ended up with nothing. But that was never really the point in the first place.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, low-A RHP Juan de Paula was granted free agency. He was the last part of the deal in the Toronto Blue Jays organization from the April 2019 Kevin Pillar trade. As such, his departure provides opportune time to look back with finality on the deal.

That is, not so much the particulars of the trade itself, but the high level incentive structures that led to the deal in the first place, and how they are ultimately detrimental to baseball. I originally started writing this post back in May 2019 when the Jays visited Pillar in San Francisco, didn’t get around to finishing it, but the denouement of the last two and a half years has done nothing but confirm the premise.

To review, on April 2nd, 2019, Pillar was traded to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for RHP Derek Law, utility man Alen Hanson and prospect RHP de Paula. It was a move that had been rumoured over the winter, but the timing was most curious in that it occurred a week into the season.

It was pretty clear at the time that the deal was not about an offer that couldn’t be refused. Law had been available on (and cleared) waivers not two months prior. He pitched 60.2 innings withba 4.90 ERA before being non-tendered in December. Hanson was a marginal player (73 wRC+, -0.5 fWAR in 577 career PA) who was DFA’d and cleared waivers five weeks later, so he was very fungible even to the Jays (notwithstanding the 48 terrible PA in interim).

De Paula, was supposedly the guy whose inclusion finally incented them to pull the trigger. But the Jays were his fourth organization in as many years (usually not a great sign), and from the beginning in Lansing didn’t look like much of a prospect to me, requiring significant improvement to even profile as a reliever. Instead, it seems more likely he was a guy the Giants didn’t much value but with some prospect pedigree the Jays front office could point to to justify moving one of the few recognizable players left on their roster.

The best justification for the trade—really the only one—was opening playing time for younger outfielders with waning options amidst a looming roster crunch. In particular, Anthony Alford, a top-50 prospect in 2018 who was yet to get a solid run with the Jays and in his last option year.

And indeed, he was recalled in the wake of the deal. But later that afternoon, the Jays went out and further added to that logjam in acquiring Socrates Brito, and when he reported two days later Alford was sent out. He wasn’t back up until September, and ultimately was cast off in August 2020 having never got a serious serious in four years with the Jays (46 total games and 75 PA). Injuries had something to do with that, and perhaps he’d have have never amounted to anything—but the Jays never found out.

After Brito struggled to a .291 OPS, the likes of Hanson and Jonathan Davis got playing time, and then at the trade deadline they added Derek Fisher and it went to him. That freed up playing time didn’t even end up used to a productive end, to give a younger player a solid run.

In the end, the Jays gave away Kevin Pillar for nothing and to no end. The best one could say is they saved his $5.8-million salary, but even that is ephemeral. If he wasn’t in their plans for 2019, they could have simply non-tendered him months earlier. They were either mistaken about his trade market, or didn’t want to take the PR blowback (much softened in April with the simultaneous Grichuk extension, distraction of games, and imminent arrival of and anticipation for Vladimir Guerrero Jr.).

But this wasn’t a baseball trade, and was never intended as such. It was simply a reflection of the incentives on the business end of baseball. Simply put, paying much of anything for wins below the roughly 80-win level makes very little sense because it has very little payoff. To the contrary, buying or retaining five wins to adding that a 65- or 70-win teams can just result in a lower draft position and signing pool, to the detriment of a long-term building project.

This wasn’t always the case, or at least nearly to the same extent. When teams were largely reliant on in-stadium revenues, and with attendance strongly correlated to winning, there was value in not being hopeless and having/retaining/adding decent players even if a team was well shy of legitimate contention.

That began to shift with the mega national TV contracts that were equally divided between teams. Revenues from and other e-commerce in the last 15 years have furthered that. Finally, increased revenue sharing around 20 years ago further added to the baseline pool of revenues a team starts off with without having to win a single game.

Local TV revenues are one of the few exceptions, at least to the extent that revenue is connected to ratings and ratings to winning. Even here, the rise of long-term guaranteed contracts with regional sports networks 10-15 years has blunted this connection. Ironically, as one of the few teams without a long term guaranteed TV deal by virtue of rogers ownership, the Jays actually have less mal-incentive in this regard than do most teams.

With all that baseline revenue, losing 100 games isn’t financially catastrophic, even for a couple years in a row. Exacerbating these broader effects is the transition to front offices run by people who first and foremost ruthlessly manage to these incentives. If it doesn’t pay to win 75 games, they’re not going to.

This has obvious negative implications for the market value of players, and hence the discontent in recent years with frozen offseason markets. But while in the short-to-medium-term the industry might be more profitable by depressing the market and salaries for a broad swatch of players, those revenue sources are not locked in forever and cannot be taken for granted.

In the long run, as an industry MLB revenue is underpinned by interest in baseball. And nothing kills fan interest in a baseball market like an extended rebuild where there is no hope for years on end. Thing of how bleak the last cycle felt in Toronto, and the true teardown mode only really lasted 18 months from mid-2018 through the end of 2019. Even including the half-hearted measures that preceded it, from peak to-trough-to-upswing was only three years.

Dumping Kevin Pillar epitomized the result of this incentive structure. For whatever his offensive limitations and not being the same defender he was in 2015-16, he still was a decent everyday regular (2.0 fWAR/2.3 bWAR in 2018). There were no red flags of imminent collapse, and he’s continued at a similar level and trend since. Not only was he one of the few links of the playoff runs of 2015-16 and recognizable names left for more casual fans, he was a good player.

It’s one thing for small market teams to trade quality regulars for a return, either to build their future or out of the pure financial necessity of not being able to afford to buy as many wins at near the marginal open market price as arbitraton elgible players get expensive. It’s even logical for large or “upper middle class” market teams to move them if the return augments the future. But moving them for nothing because they’ll be free agents when you’re likely to contend anyway, to free up the playing time to cycle through a few retreads in the mean’s brutal for fans.

Of course, keeping Pillar would not have have appreciably changed 2019 on its own, and rebuilds are going to happen. But the incentives should be for teams to keep them as shallow and short as possible, rather than deep and necessarily long. It’s worth noting in this regard that San Francisco was in a similar position as the Jays in 2018/19, in a rebuild after winning 73 games. Yet they chose to add a player like Pillar instead of stripping things down to the studs. While the Jays’ rebuild has gone very well, they just won 107 games. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

The days of MLB teams dishing out big contracts to declining players in their 30s based on past performance levels—essentially playing for service time—are over and won’t be coming back. That’s fine. But indifferently fire-saling off quality players is an entirely different matter, counter to the interests of fans and baseball, and it’s got to stop.